2014 - %3, February

A Giant Union Is Planning to Protest the Oscars

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 9:00 PM EST
SEIU protests at the Academy's Nominees Lunch

The Oscars air Sunday, but this year, the stars of the silver screen will be faced with picket lines and protesters.

That's because the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents 2.1 million service workers around the world, plans to protest the Academy's decision to hire Security Industry Specialists (SIS)—a company the union accuses of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and worker intimidation—to provide security for awards night. (The company denies the allegations.)

"We don't think [the Academy] should be using a company that has this kind of record," SEIU campaign director Sam Kehinde explains. "All we are trying to do is make sure the public knows about it and the client knows."

SEIU activists bearing banners and signs voiced their concerns at last week's Nominee Lunch in Beverly Hills, but they were unable to relay their concerns to Academy representatives. Now, Kehinde says, the union is back for round two.

Over 100 SEIU activists—including current and former SIS employees—will converge near the Dolby Theatre on Friday afternoon in the hope of attracting attention from the public and entertainment industry officials who will be on site preparing for Sunday's event, Kehinde says. The protesters plan to follow up with a smaller protest on Sunday, when it will be more difficult for a large group to gain access to the area.

Daivon Young, an SIS security specialist assigned to Amazon, is traveling all the way from Seattle to participate in the protest. He says he is scared about his job security and how he will be treated after speaking out against SIS, but "it is the right thing to do."

Young has been an SIS employee for a year and a half and works at the high-security buildings. Though he is considered a specialist, he makes $15.50 an hour and is given 36 hours a week. He says he thinks the wage is good but many employees are only offered part-time work.

As the sole breadwinner supporting his three-month-old son, Malachai and his wife, Lavicy, Young's concerned. "It is important for me to be able to provide for my family," he says. "Me, growing up, I didn't have a mom. I didn't have my dad. Putting a roof over my son's head—it means everything to me."

Young describes the pressure he feels at work and says the simplest mistake will result in termination. He is often fearful about being penalized and says he feels belittled by his employers. Provoked by these concerns, he turned to the internet. "I wanted to look up reports about SIS," he explains, "to see if the same things were going on somewhere else." He landed on their "Union Facts" page, meant to derail and disprove the accusations SEIU laid against SIS. "It started naming all these things and, in my head I am thinking, 'You do do that!" Young exclaims.  

Daivon Young (Left) with his wife, Lavicy, their son, Malachai, and former SIS worker Richell Banks Courtesy SEIU

He says he had never considered the union before then and had been told explicitly as an employee he should not become involved with SEIU. "I understand now why we need a union," he adds. This is why he hopes his participation in the protest will make a difference.

Tom Seltz, copresident and CFO of SIS, says the union's allegations are unsubstantiated. He sees the Oscar protests as a form of harassment—a ploy for union officials to collect more money.

"I think the union is looking for dues and I don't think there is much they can promise our employees that they aren't already getting," he says. "I don't think there's anything they can promise."

Seltz says unions are unnecessary and says he sees no need for his employees to join. He emphasizes that it is still up to workers to make up their minds and denies claims that his company has used intimidation tactics to deter union involvement.

SIS pays employees higher than the average hourly wage for the industry, but only half of SIS workers are full time and receiving benefits. Seltz says this has more to do with the nature of the work and client needs than company policy, and that many SIS employees are off-duty police officers who can only work part-time or are hired to work temporarily for specific events. 

But Steve Amitay, the executive director of the National Association of Security Companies, says the industry norm is to employ workers full time. "Currently the majority of security officers at most contract security companies are full-time employees," he explains via email. Though Amitay acknowledges that there are instances when part-time work is warranted, he says that "some companies believe that the offer of part-time employment may deter the best job candidates and work against creating a dedicated and experienced workforce." 

Daivon Young says he hopes his presence at this weekend's protest will help convince his company to be more supportive of unionization. "All I want done is for SIS to allow us to have a union," he says. "We aren't asking for extra mayonnaise and extra pickles. We just want to be treated right."

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Friday Cat Blogging - 28 February 2014

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 4:00 PM EST

Quelle horreur! After two weeks of lovely weather, suddenly Southern California is in the middle of a monsoon. Domino is not happy about this state of affairs and blames me personally. In this, she takes after Petronius the Arbiter: "Pete had worked out a simple philosophy. I was in charge of quarters, rations, and weather; he was in charge of everything else. But he held me especially responsible for the weather."

And please do not bore Domino with your petty human concerns over "drought" and "reservoir levels." Here she is looking disdainfully through a rain-soaked window into a rain-soaked backyard that just yesterday was all sunny and beautiful. It is simply a nightmare.

Media Adviser to Hillary Clinton in 1999: "Be Careful to Be Real"

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 3:41 PM EST

In 1999, as former First Lady Hillary Clinton was preparing to run for US Senator in New York, she was coached by Mandy Grunwald, a public relations consultant who also served as media adviser for Clinton's subsequent presidential campaign, before a speech. Back then, Grunwald had some words of wisdom for Clinton, who is now considered front runner for the Democrat's 2016 presidential nomination: "Be careful to be real." This is one of eight pieces of advice included in a July 1999 letter released today as part of a trove of documents from the Bill Clinton Administration.

Some of these tips could still be applicable for Clinton in 2016, if she chooses to run: "Don't assume anyone knows anything about you...New Yorkers generally know about healthcare, your work for children, and then a lot of tabloid junk." Here are the other tips: 

 

Hillary Clinton in 1993: Individual Mandate Is a "Much Harder Sell"

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 3:36 PM EST
Hillary Clinton speaking before a Senate panel in 1993.

The individual mandate has been one of the most controversial aspects of Obamacare since Congress passed the law in 2009. Conservatives have railed against the requirement that everyone purchase health insurance or face tax penalties. And the 2012 Supreme Court case that decided the fate of Obamacare centered around Republicans' objections to the mandate.

But the individual mandate originated as a conservative goal—first proposed by the Heritage Foundation, later adopted by Senate Republicans as an alternative approach to President Bill Clinton's efforts to reform in the health care system during his first term.

New documents unsealed Friday by the Bill Clinton's presidential library show that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton wasn't a fan of the individual mandate back when it was a Republican idea. In September 1993, Hillary traveled to Capitol Hill and explained White House's health care plan to a gathering of Democratic leaders from the House and Senate. During Clinton's remarks, which spelled out the details of the proposal before they were released to the public, she dismissed the concept of the mandate with a prescient knowledge of how tricky it would be to sell to the public:

But if the Republican alternative, as it appears now to be shaping up, at least among the moderate Republicans in the Senate, is an individual mandate, we have looked at that in every way we know to to (inaudible). That is politically and substantively a much harder sell than the one we've got—a much harder sell.

Because not only will you be saying that the individual bears the full responsibility; you will be sending shock waves through the currently insured population that if there is no requirement that employers continue to insure, then they, too, may bear the individual responsibility.

Unfortunately for Clinton, if she runs for president in 2016 (as widely predicted) she'll likely have to defend Obama's implementation of that mandate.

Rahm Emanuel on Charlton Heston: "Shove It up His Ass"

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 3:31 PM EST

On Friday, after a one-year delay, Bill Clinton's presidential library posted thousands of pages of previously unreleased documents. It's mostly inside baseball stuff, but there are some useful nuggets. For instance, a 1998 memo written by White House speechwriter Jeff Shesol recounts a proposal by then-Clinton-aide Rahm Emanuel (who went on to be President Barack Obama's chief of staff and is now mayor of Chicago) for dealing with National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston, in a speech heralding a new bulletproof vest law: "Shove it up his ass." 

 
William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library

Here's Who the Money Men Are Backing So Far in the Republican Field

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 3:02 PM EST

Wesley Lowery takes a look today at who all of Mitt Romney's donors are supporting these days. As Lowery says, this shouldn't really be taken as a look at "Romney money." It's more a look at who's getting some love from wealthy mainstream Republicans. The answer, it turns out, is unsurprising:

  1. Jeb Bush
  2. Scott Walker
  3. Paul Ryan

This makes sense to me. If I had to pick a top three, this would be it, with the order depending a lot on who decides to get serious about running. I think Paul Ryan would be very formidable, with strong appeal to both tea party types and mainstream types, but it's unclear if he has any interest in 2016. Jeb Bush is a classic candidate who, again, has some appeal in both camps, but has to decide if he thinks he can overcome the obvious baggage of being a Bush. Scott Walker has to win reelection this year—and show that he can do it handily—before he takes any further steps.

As for the rest of the field, I continue to think that (a) Chris Christie is toast, (b) Rand Paul is a vanity candidate, and (c) the rest of them are going to tear each other limb from limb fighting for the title of king of the wingnuts. Naturally I reserve the right to change my mind later and pretend that I never wrote this.

STANDARD CAVEAT: Yes, it's ridiculous to be talking about this so far ahead of the election. I apologize. But my excuse is that this is invisible primary stuff, and that really does matter this far out. Besides, talking about the "invisible primary" marks you as a sophisticate, and I wanted an opportunity to do that.

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Hilarious White House Memo In 1995: "Hillary Could Speak To Young Women Through Internet"

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 2:46 PM EST

On Friday, Bill Clinton's presidential library released 4,000 previously secret documents from his time as president. An August 31, 1995, memo titled "HRC Media Possibilities" written by Lisa Caputo, an aide to Hillary Clinton, discusses the various venues through which to promote the First Lady. They include meeting with the editors of women's and liberal magazines, sitting for interviews pegged to the Clintons' 20th anniversary and the birthday of Eleanor Roosevelt, and even making an appearance on the popular ABC sitcom Home Improvement. ("I know this may sound like a wild idea, but I think it is an interesting one to discuss.")

The otherwise sober memo takes an unexpectedly funny turn, however, when the Internet comes up. Or, as Caputo refers to it, "Internet." As in: "As Karen has said, Internet has become a very popular mode of communication. Hillary could speak to young women through Internet."

Here's an except from the memo:

Wait a Second. I Thought Bitcoins Were Unstealable?

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 2:26 PM EST

I don't really care about Bitcoin—really I don't—but I guess I'm curious about something. How is that cyber thieves were able to steal a million bitcoins from Mt. Gox? I understand that Mt. Gox had inadequate security, but I thought the whole point of bitcoin was that it was protected by its very nature: every transaction is stored in a block chain; the block chains are mirrored by thousands of bitcoin miners; and you can't screw with the block chains unless you apply galactic amounts of computing power. So even if you managed to steal some bitcoins, you couldn't get anyone else to accept them unless you could demonstrate proper chain of custody, so to speak. Since this is more or less impossible, all the stolen bitcoins are of no use to anyone.

Obviously I'm missing something fundamental here, since I assume thieves don't bother taking stuff they can never use. And yes, this is just academic interest in the deep geekery behind bitcoin. But can anyone point me to an explainer that tells me exactly how a theft like this could be successfully pulled off?

UPDATE: Judging from some links in comments, apparently the problem is that Mt. Gox had a bug in their software that allowed thieves to create seemingly legitimate transaction changes which were propagated throughout the block chains. There is a known problem with the bitcoin protocol that allows this, and Mt. Gox didn't properly protect against it:

Many exchanges use the Transaction ID to uniquely identify transactions, but as it turns out, an attacker can change the Transaction ID without changing the actual transaction, rebroadcast the changed transaction (effectively creating a double-spend) and if his altered transaction gets accepted into a block instead of the legit transaction, the attacker receives his coins and can complain with the exchange that he didn't. The exchange will then check their database, fetch the Transaction ID from it, look it up in the blockchain and not find it. So they could conclude that the transaction indeed failed and credit the account with the coins. ... A simple workaround is to not use the Transaction ID to identify transactions on the exchange side, but the (amount, address, timestamp) instead.

I don't know that I actually understand this, but then again, I'm not sure I want to. In any case, apparently it's a known bug that Mt. Gox should have handled in its internal software. But they didn't.

UPDATE 2: Emin Gün Sirer, who sure sounds like he knows what he's talking about, says that the problem above, known as "transaction malleability," is almost certainly not behind the Mt. Gox theft. Nor was it lost keys, hackers, web server problems, or US spooks.

So what was it? He doesn't know. He concludes with this: "Chances are that this is a simple case of theft, involving at least one insider." So I guess we still have to wait and see.

Obama Administration Won't Release Real Name of American It's Considering Killing Without Trial

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 1:48 PM EST

President Barack Obama and his national security team are debating whether to kill Abdullah al-Shami, an American citizen whom they say is an Al Qaeda terrorist hiding out in Pakistan.

Shami wouldn't be the first American Al Qaeda suspect to be deliberately killed by the government without charge or trial. That distinction belongs to Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaeda leader who was vaporized in a US drone strike in Yemen in 2011. In 2013, the government admitted that Awlaki was one of four Americans killed by drone strikes ordered by the Obama administration. Samir Khan, another American, was killed in the same strike as Awlaki. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar's 16-year-old son, was killed in a separate strike several weeks later, although government sources have told reporters that Abdulrahman's death was a mistake. And Jude Mohammed, another American, was killed in a third strike in Pakistan the same year.

The government claims that, of the four Americans killed by drone strikes under Obama, only Awlaki was deliberately and specifically targeted for death—the first and only American to receive such treatment thus far. Shami would be the second.

This time, though, there's even less public information about the man the government is targeting for death. The New York Times' Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt reported Friday that Shami is a nom de guerre, and the Obama administration won't even release the alleged terrorist's real name:

Interviews with American officials and outside terrorism experts sketch only the most impressionistic portraits of Mr. Shami.

Born in the United States, possibly in Texas, he moved with his family to the Middle East when he was a toddler. Obama administration officials declined requests to provide biographical information about Mr. Shami such as his real name and age—saying that the information is classified—or any specific information about where he was born or where he traveled after leaving the United States.

[...]

[Shami] came to the attention of the American authorities in 2008, around the same time that another American, Bryant Neal Vinas, was getting Qaeda training in Pakistan, one former counterterrorism official recalled. The authorities worried at the time that a surge of people with terrorism training and Western passports might be coming to the United States. Mr. Vinas was later captured and brought back to the United States, where he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges.

The contrast between Vinas, who was captured, and Shami, who was not, is fascinating. Vinas was brought into the federal court system and had the opportunity to avail himself of legal representation, presumably because the Obama administration thought it was important to give someone they wanted to lock up for a long time a trial. But when the administration wants to kill, rather than imprison, an American, the courts apparently don't have to be involved at all.

Chart of the Day: Attitudes Toward Gay Marriage Have Changed About as Fast as Attitudes Toward Interracial Marriage

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 1:39 PM EST

Jon Cohn wonders how it is that attitudes toward same-sex marriage have changed so rapidly:

The change may seem inevitable now, but it didn’t always. And it’s happened with breathtaking speed....It’s easy to assume the change represents nothing more than a generational shift....[But] pollsters have found that, over time, support for same-sex marriage has risen even within generations.

One likely reason for this, according to most social scientists, is the contact theory. As more people realize that they have a gay neighbor or friend or family member, the reality of that relationship crashes into—and destroys—their stereotypes and preconceptions....But even that explanation is inadequate....The real mystery here, or at least a big part of it, is what suddenly made the environment more hospitable? At this point, social scientists admit, they have no answers they can verify—only theories that seem roughly to fit the facts.

For what it's worth, I want to suggest that attitudes haven't changed any more quickly than we should have expected. It's just a fact that social change comes pretty quickly these days. Take a look at the chart on the right, for example. Based on Gallup polling, it shows attitudes toward gay marriage vs. attitudes toward interracial marriage among whites.1 Favorable attitudes toward interracial marriage increased 28 points between 1978 and 1997. Favorable attitudes toward gay marriage increased 27 points between 1996 and 2013.

Everything Cohn talks about in his post could apply to interracial marriage too: generational changes, network effects, popular culture, and so forth. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that public attitudes toward gay marriage changed at about the same rate as attitudes toward interracial marriage. With the right pressure and the right tailwinds, this is simply how fast cultural change can happen in our modern media era.

1Note that I compressed 19 years of data on interracial marriage into 17 years on the chart. Gallup didn't poll interracial marriage frequently enough to produce an exact 17-year span that would line up with their polling on gay marriage.